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Stay-at-home consumers, Chinese suppliers drive US import surge

The surge in U.S. seaborne imports that has characterized the fall and early winter continued in November with a 20.7% year-over-year increase in all shipments and a 17.0% increase in imports of containerized freight, Panjiva's data shows. That would suggest the recovery from coronavirus-related cutbacks in demand is more than completed. Indeed, the year-to-date imports of 26.47 million 20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs, as of Nov. 30 compares to 26.48 million TEUs at the same point in 2019.

Normal seasonal patterns are occurring, with shipments of containerized freight having declined 8.4% sequentially versus October, though that may do little to alleviate the congestion flagged in Panjiva's research of Dec. 1. 

As in previous months, the expansion has been led by a surge in shipments from China with growth of 30.6% year over year in November. That compares to a 33.6% increase a month earlier and reflects a mixture of continued strong consumer and industrial demand. The recovery in shipments from Taiwan and South Korea, meanwhile, have both slowed, though to a still considerable 9.7% and 22.2%, respectively, likely reflecting a slowing of industrial demand. 

There has also been a renewed growth in imports from the European Union and the U.K., with an expansion of 8.0% year over year following a 1.0% increase a month earlier. The shaky nature of industrial and commercial lockdowns in Europe linked to the pandemic may be one factor behind the shipping volatility, a factor also seen in the latest German export order PMI.

The expansion in shipments from China has been driven in large part by two sectors. U.S. seaborne imports of home furnishings and household appliances accounted for 39.6% and 17.6%, respectively, of the increase in containerized shipments from China in the July 1 to Nov. 30 peak shipping season. In October, imports of household appliances climbed 65.5% year over year while imports of home furnishings increased 53.8%. 

Both are likely beneficiaries of increased stay-at-home spending while the impact of section 301 tariffs has proven to be minimal. Shipments of leisure products increased 39.1% year over year in November, likely reflecting a late surge in toy shipments as well as imports of fitness equipment. 

Consumer electronics has been the fly in the ointment, with growth of just 0.4% in November after a 24.1% jump in October indicating that Chinese suppliers may have sated their customers' demands. Apparel imports have also continued a steady, but slower, rate of expansion with a 14.1% rise in November.

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Christopher Rogers is a senior researcher at Panjiva, which is a business line of S&P Global Market Intelligence, a division of S&P Global Inc. This content does not constitute investment advice, and the views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of S&P Global Market Intelligence. Links are current at the time of publication. S&P Global Market Intelligence is not responsible if those links are unavailable later.